A man watches a TV out of which a woman in a pink superhero suit walks.
Design by Samantha Sweig.

It is nearly impossible to consume any sort of media in a vacuum, and television shows are no exception. I don’t think it’s unusual, especially today, especially if you find a deep connection to a particular show, to scour social media for any scraps you can find of cast interactions. Whether it be regularly refreshing YouTube for the next video in a press tour (because, yes, I will be clicking on every “How Well They Know Each Other” and “Answering Fan Questions” video I can find), looking through the Instagram comments of your favorite actors to see online interactions between cast members or scrolling through compilations on TikTok for a show you love, consuming media from our fan favorites is always rewarding. Sometimes I’ll even go a step further and actually follow the actor, becoming a regular consumer of their content. We’ve all been there. 

But as we “get to know” an actor online, our perception of their character changes. After the fifth season of “Stranger Things” was released, my TikTok was filled with funny compilations of things the actor behind Will Byers, Noah Schnapp (“The Tutor”) had said or done online, and getting to know the actor’s personality made me much more invested in Will’s character. Seeing how close the cast of “Heartstopper” appears to be in their Instagram interactions and Twitter meme wars made me love the characters of one of my favorite shows even more. Watching Danielle Galligan (“Kin”) and Calahan Skogman (“G.I. Jose”) (who play Nina Zenik and Matthias Helvar in “Shadow and Bone”) interact in interviews on YouTube made me care so much more about an on-screen relationship that didn’t really interest me in the beginning. Even the videos I’ve seen of Lili Reinhart (Betty Cooper), Camila Mendes (Veronica Lodge) and Madelaine Petsch (Cheryl Blossom) from their joint TikTok account were enough to make me care the tiniest bit about “Riverdale.” 

Caring about actors and loving their interactions as people makes us want to see them together more, leading us to watch and rewatch the shows in which they feature. Whether this is due to the comfort we get from characters, the comfort we get from the actors or a combination of the two, simply being surrounded by content related to a show makes the step toward rewatching it easier.

For me, two shows in particular have had a cast that, at some point, seemed to form strong connections with each other in the real world: “Outer Banks” and “The Summer I Turned Pretty.”

“Outer Banks” was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it makes sense that the cast was forced to spend so much time with each other. They lived together and formed deep friendships, which made for very convincing onstage performances. The chemistry between their characters, whether it be in the romantic relationships or the platonic ones, was unmatched. Their pre-existing bonds made their characters’ relationships appear so much more authentic on screen, making them easier to connect with as a viewer. When we feel that we are shown intimate, real, personal aspects of an actor or character, we feel like we are being let into their world. It can almost feel like we’re their friend. 

The case of “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” is a little different. Several of the cast members lived together out of choice, rather than circumstance, and, solely based on their Instagram posts and online interactions, seem to spend a lot of their free time together. While neither of these shows are favorites of mine (I only finished “The Summer I Turned Pretty” to hate on Team Jeremiah), they were certainly elevated because of the perceived strong relationships among the cast. 

When we have strong emotions toward a cast or character, it can become difficult to separate the actor from the role they play. Our love or hate for an actor can easily influence what we think of their character, and the reverse is true too. When I think of characters I hate, Rafe Cameron (Drew Starkey, “Outer Banks”) is at the top of the list. Given my visceral disgust with the character, I can commend Starkey’s ability as an actor to make his character feel real. From what I’ve seen in cast interviews, he seems like a decent person, but I’m pretty sure my assessment of him as “a decent person,” rather than someone I actually like, is largely influenced by my hatred for his character.

When we consume too much content from a particular show, actor or celebrity, the likelihood of becoming more than a fan and entering a parasocial relationship increases. Defined as “one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence,” parasocial relationships are often critiqued as stand-ins for real, face-to-face relationships. Rather than getting the social and emotional benefits of spending time getting to know someone or strengthening connections with people in the real world, spending time in parasocial relationships has also been linked to loneliness and isolation. Additionally, they can become dangerous for the celebrity when they lead to instances of stalking. 

That goes beyond the typical parasocial relationship, though. While parasocial relationships are heavily criticized and certainly can be taken too far, in the vast majority of cases, they have been found to be more beneficial than harmful. When we see someone on the screen succeeding where we hope to succeed and are given the reassurance that someone who looks like us is capable of doing what we want to do, we might feel inspired to actually set out to achieve those goals. Parasocial relationships have also been linked to both identity formation and autonomy development. They often provide us with feelings of comfort and give us a “safe forum … to experiment with different ways of being.” Furthermore, they can build confidence and help us strive toward being our ideal selves, and, contrary to common critiques, parasocial relationships can actually help us build relationships with others and expand our social networks when we meet others who are part of the same fan community. 

So make that connection with your favorite characters and favorite actors. Maybe it will influence the way you watch, and maybe that’s something you want to be aware of, but really, what’s the harm? Maybe you will develop a parasocial relationship, but maybe (if you’re careful) that can be a good thing. 

Daily Arts Writer Jenna Jaehnig can be reached at jjaehnig@umich.edu.